Lessons learned in San Francisco
"'TAKE my camel, dear,' said Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." The opening sentence of Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond remains perenially engaging and a wonderful introduction to the vagueries of a certain type of Anglo-Catholicism. I thought of it as I sat in Butterfields, the restaurant recently opened under the Institute of Christian Studies in Margaret Street, opposite All Saints Church.
William Butterfield (18141900) designed this bastion of Anglo-Catholicism in 1859. Other monuments to his talent in the High-Victorian style include Keble College, Oxford and St Augustine's, Queens Gate. The wonderful brick-filled building of the Institute of Christian Studies which he designed in 1870 was first used as the local parish school. At the beginning of this century it housed the celebrated All Saints' Choir School whose choristers sang at subsequent coronations with boys from Westminster Abbey and St Paul's.
The choir school was disbanded in 1968 and then, in 1973, the newly-formed Institute of Christian Studies took over the building and flourished for five years. It offered a wide course of basic Christian formation, concentrating on biblical studies, theology and the practical working out of the Christian life.
Cornerstone, which operates out of the Westminster Cathedral Centre, initially modelled itself on the Institute which has recently started up again, under the direction of Rev Dr John Cullen, previously chaplain at Worcester College, Oxford.
A WEEK later I was having lunch at another restaurant, The Patio
on Castro Street in San Francisco, one block away from the Most Holy Redeemer Church on Diamond Street. This church has a model congregation: the Renew programme and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults flourish, the 10.30 Mass on Sunday is crowded out, the Thursday night bingo raised $500,000 in its first year, and the parishioners have made three pilgrimages to Medjugorge.
The annual Quarant Ore devotions have a special focus, however, and funerals are very frequent in this parish. The church has a special ministry to people with Aids — and 50 per cent of San Francisco's gay population is Catholic. I say the church advisedly because it was local parishioners who first set up the Most Holy Redeemer Support Group which now brings together volunteers from every creed and nation to minister to the emotional, physical and spiritual needs of some 90 people with Aids or Aids Related Complex (ARC).
The programme's director is a Franciscan, Regan P Chapman, and he described their activities at length. Their greatest fundraising catch is a grandmother who cooks for Open Hands. This service — "for my boys" as she puts it — takes supper and the following day's lunch out to 90 homes in the area. Bland food, macro-biotic, vegetarian, a liquid diet — nothing is too much trouble for those who offer care to the terminally sick within the local community.
That afternoon Bill Stevens, recently appointed director of the office of pastoral care in New Jersey's Catholic diocese of Metuchen and another visitor to San Francisco, took me further on our travels. We visited Rest Stop Support Centre on Church Street. Two of the volunteer staff spoke to us at length. One of them, Paul Steindal of the gay Metropolitan Community Church is a trainee minister. He works part-time at the local Safeways check-out in order to fund his voluntary work at Rest Stop, and claims that any kind of evangelisation would be totally inappropriate in a context which has to offer basic support to men and women who work with those who are HIV-positive or who many themselves be affected.
Such divisions of diagnosis seem anyway to have no meaning when you are in the kitchen drinking tea over the clatter of a shared washing machine. The centre after all claims to be both for and by people living with Aids, and is also funded by gifts and donations.
A PROPHETIC voice for our own times is that of the North American religious sister, Sandra Schneiders, author of New Wineskins. Her's was a notable absence from the West Coast. She is presently on sabbatical from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, preparing to spend this study break at St Edmund's College, Cambridge. During the summer she will be conducting a number of workshops on the religious life, including a two-day conference in London on July 22 and 23. This is for men and women
religious and is consciously ecumenical. It is being held at Baden Powell House. Now there's a new place to recruit for vocations.
THE Mercy Centre at Burlingame offers another face of Californian culture. Festival '89, and the Symposium on the training of spiritual directors which I attended which followed it, were for and by people living with spirituality. Rosemary Haughton's has long been a name to conjure with and on the first morning she spoke of the experience of a passionate God as the heart of the Christian enterprise. A passionate and prophetic impulse is invigorating to the churches but dangerous as well. After all it has grave political and economic implications.
Rosemary's own work at Wellspring House, a project which cares for homeless women and children in a shelter in Massachusetts, gives authority to what she has to say about passion as a political activity.
Another British presence during my California visit was afforded by Roberta Nobleman whose one-woman performance of J Janda's play Julian recalled both the life and ministry of Julian of Norwich, and more importantly her relevance to our own day and age.
During Julian's life, England was swept by the Great Plague, while later she witnessed the effects of the Peasants' Revolt.
Roberta Nobleman's admirable performance captured this historical context both vividly and movingly.
Sr Lavinia Byrne IBVM works at the Institute of Spirituality at Heythrop College. Her most recent book, "Women Before God," was published last year by SPCK.